Oh, what a beautiful day.
I got a beautiful feelin’
Ev’rything’s goin’ my way
I finally had my first brush with American theatre this past week. Sponsored by the benevolent endowments at Texas A&M’s MSC OPAS, I along with other select international students were offered free tickets to two theatre performances. This program was intended to introduce internationals to the beauty of American theatre. The theatre performances were vastly different from each other; from the beautifully lyrical grand-daddy of all musicals, Oklahoma! to the intensely engaging, The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial. Before I get into the description of my experiences, I just wanted to say that I loved them both and enjoyed myself tremendously.
I have always been a fan of theatre and have seen some notable performances from mostly Marathi theatre (a treasure house of talent! Bollywood unfortunately only slots them as character artistes). I missed out on the offerings from Prithvi and other English theatre performances in Mumbai simply because I lived too far away in Panvel. Back to American theatre, I have always thought of typical ‘Broadway’ musicals as flashy, extravagant, and pretentious displays; not to mention extremely ‘gay’. Ash tried converting me by making me sit through Moulin Rouge (the movie) and instead succeeded in pushing me away from them. But I couldn’t pass up on free tickets to a musical I had at least heard about. The Will Rogers Follies couldn’t make it due to an unfortunate accident that destroyed their set. So Oklahoma! it was.
Since there are no ‘free lunches’, the international students were asked to attend a short lecture regarding the musical before they handed us a ticket. Imagine being made to sit through a lecture before watching a movie. No one would go, right? Wrong! the lecture was not only interesting and entertaining but as it proved later, made watching the performance much more enjoyable since we could note the underlying meaning of each song and their lyrics. A short history introduction helped us place the production in correct perspective. It was released in 1943, when America was at war and the future of the world was uncertain. America had recently emerged from the Depression and naming the musical Oklahoma (without the exclamation mark, which was added later) almost doomed it to failure. The opening sequence as I saw later was no flashy display of color with a hundred-strong cast but in fact an old woman grinding grain churning milk in a cornfield accompanied with an almost-gay cowboy singing his love for the land and optimism (the first two lines of this post). This was a major departure from the trend of musicals (even today) and was a huge risk on part of the producers.
After the lecture, I went to the Rudder Auditorium for the performance. I had come directly after classes and was embarrassingly shocked to see everyone dressed in formal attire. I in my jeans and t-shirt felt hopelessly out of place and only when I saw other embarrassed
international students bunched up on the last row of the auditorium that I felt a little better. I moved to the center of the row since no one seemed to occupy the seats there and made myself comfortable. Barring a 15-minute intermission, the next three hours were a delight. I surprisingly enjoyed the musical; especially the song-n-dance routines. Ash later termed this as ‘discovering my gay side’; hrmph! She better make that remark at her own peril.
The choreography by Susan Stroman was outstanding. The bucolic setting in small town in Oklahoma was a perfect backdrop for the cowboy and farmer songs and dances. Basically a love story (almost Bollywoodish), complete with a villain, it had its moments of hilarious situational comedy. My favorite character (I think everyone’s favorite) was Ali Hakeem, a Don Juan-esque Persian peddler who had the audience in splits each time he cracked a smart comment in his middle-eastern accent. Interestingly, he was played by Sorab Wadia, a desi who grew up in Mumbai (any relation, Arzan? I bet there is). Curly and Laurey are the quintessential romantic couple who cannot profess their love for each other until things really get out of hand, even in a small town in the western hinterland. The sets were simple and the depiction of the grand spread of western America landscapes was mind blowing (even from the frikkin last row!).
Overall, an extremely enjoyable experience. I am definitely hooked on American theater if they are this good. Sadly, Ash couldn’t be there since it was a weekday. We went to the other performance, The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial (properly attired!) but it was a different genre although equally engaging. I’ll leave that for later or better still, let Ash do the honor since the central theme was up her alley of interests.